Cannes 2018 review: Birds of Passage (Ciro Guerra & Cristina Gallego)

It all started with a dowry… The interesting thing about Birds of Passage, Colombian director Ciro Guerra’s fourth feature film (while a debut for his co-director Cristina Gallego) is that even though on the surface it is an epic crime drama in the vein of, say, Martin Scorsese, it shows more layers than that by the way it triggers events that unfold over two decades (and two hours of runtime). Birds of Passage is as interested in its crime families feuding over the budding Colombian drug trade as it is in the effects that this Western influence has on indigenous communities and their traditions. So it seems fitting that it starts with something as culturally tied as a dowry.

When Raphayet (José Acosta), a member of the Wayuu people but already more ‘westernized’ than most in his community, wants to marry Zaida (Natalia Reyes), the daughter of powerful community matriarch Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez), a steep dowry is demanded. The coffee smuggling business he is in with his friend Moisés (Jhon Narváez) will not make him enough to meet the demand, so when a group of Americans looking to set up a marijuana trade route cross his path, he bites. Convincing his cousin Aníbal (Juan Martínez) to switch growing coffee for something more hallucinatory, he finds initially that business is booming, and both families prosper greatly. While Úrsula tries to hold on to the traditional ways of her community, the newfound wealth is already starting to consume Raphayet and Zaida, not to mention Moisés. As their business grows, greed and strife, those typical traits of capitalism, start to take their toll and the relationship between Raphayet and Aníbal deteriorates.

The intermediary between these two feuding families is the uncle Peregrino (José Vicente Cotes), a so-called ‘messenger of the word’, which is a typical and highly regarded role in the Wayuu community. The final nail in the coffin of Wayuu traditions that plunges the business into a full-on war eventually starts with him, as the film shows just how deeply capitalist greed has eroded local norms and values.

Where most directors would be content with the epic tale of two warring crime families itself, Guerra and Gallego layer the social factors in, and do so in a way that keeps Birds of Passage accessible but still manages to give the film powerful social relevance. And those acquainted with Guerrra’s successful and Oscar nominated previous film, Embrace of the Serpent (also in the Quinzaine a few years ago), know that he uses powerful imagery to make his case. In a long opening sequence, a startling ritual dance between Raphayet and Zaida sets the tone for a film that will never take the easy route. Its plot is as important as its message on the destructive influence of Western culture, a theme that Guerra already explored powerfully in Embrace of the Serpent. Birds of Passage doesn’t quite reach the heights of that film, but its accessibility should get it more exposure than Serpent (and that film’s fame should help too).

Anyone who has seen Guerra’s previous films will probably know that the technical value is top level, in particular the cinematography. Guerra and Gallego deliver again, not just with the camerawork, but also the magnificent score by Leonardo Heiblum. A grainy image lends the film, set in a time period from the late ’60s to the early ’80s, an added authenticity, and the costume design (of the Western costumes, at least) does so as well, sometimes even to comical effect. The cast is a mix of professional actors and non-professionals, and while the screenplay doesn’t require a lot of them in terms of emotion, Carmiña Martinez and José Acosta leave a strong impression, the former’s arc over the length of the film probably the best illustration of Birds of Passage‘s core message of eroding community life.

Birds of Passage is the first film on which Cristina Gallego also climbed into the director’s chair, having previously solely acted as Guerra’s producer. And even though she did not write the screenplay, the story idea came from her as well, so a lot of the credit for the film should also land in her lap. The title Birds of Passage signals elements of change, and the change in the two families in this community is laid out in five chapters, or more accurately, five songs. Each of these chapters features a narrative Wayuu song, and this is the kind of detail that lets Birds of Passage shine and move itself a step up from your standard narco-thriller. It shows Gallego’s and Guerra’s strong understanding of their subject matter and makes the film an interesting and potent mix of sprawling gangster epic and anthropological study.